Travel: Dreams turn to ashes for Eco Inn on Victoria's off-grid French Island

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A devastating fire at French Island's Eco Inn destroyed the entire business and homestead. (Supplied: Phil Bock) © Provided by ABC NEWS A devastating fire at French Island's Eco Inn destroyed the entire business and homestead. (Supplied: Phil Bock)

The nights are dark on French Island.

Once the handful of tourists heads back to the mainland this patch of land feels even more isolated.

French Island is little more than 60 kilometres south of Melbourne and yet most Melburnians would never have heard of it.

Residents live off the grid here and love the seclusion.

Car headlights sporadically light up the back roads and on a clear night the stars sparkle.

It made the fire that burned on the morning of April 2 this year, seem even brighter. The flames leapt from the kitchen of the Eco Inn as the smoke alarm let out its constant shrill.

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Phil and Yuko Bock stumbled from their bedroom where they slept, but the smoke pushed them back. They jumped from a second-floor window to escape.

Their beloved dog Sammy never made it out.

Four accommodation cottages just metres from the main homestead also burned to the ground. The guests escaped uninjured, but everything was gone.

Phil and Yuko had struggled during the endless Victorian COVID lockdowns with no paying visitors, and they had suspended their insurance.

They'd spent a decade building up their business and in one night it was all gone.

"Losing our home, business, and beloved dog to a fire is a tragedy that we will remember forever," Phil says.

"But the thoughtfulness of our small local community and past guests has kept us hopeful. It really is appreciated and reminds us how lucky we are to live here.

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"We may be geographically isolated and considered socially disadvantaged, but being part of a small community is like no other when it matters the most."

Phil and Yuko have moved into a small holiday cottage that remains on the property, the only building spared by the fire.

Our Back Roads team stayed at the Eco Inn during our shoot just a few months earlier.

You won't see them in our program on air, but they were our welcoming hosts, our companions, and our snooker challengers late into the evenings, and I wanted to share their story.

The fire not only gutted their livelihoods but left a community reeling. A Go Fund Me page has been set up to help them.

A close-knit and resourceful community

When a Back Roads team arrives in small-town destinations, we're immediately welcomed.

French Island was no different, although some were anxious that the spotlight of a Back Roads TV crew might spoil the privacy they clung to.

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The island is twice the size of its neighbour, Phillip Island, but happily dodges the daily tourist-enticing penguin parades to the south.

Unlike Phillip Island, French Island has no bitumen, no council, no rates, and no bridge.

The barge fits just two cars for the 15-minute trip from Corinella on the Victorian mainland to the landmass north of Phillip Island.

Terry, the barge pilot, calls us "Bituminites", just like all the other visitors who take for granted the sealed motorways of our daily drives.

The permanent population numbers not much more than 100: an idiosyncratic mix of rich and poor, famous and anonymous, worldly and parochial.

But they are inextricably linked by a chosen lifestyle that has one foot in the past and an eye on the future.

An environmental vineyard is gaining a name for itself among wine connoisseurs.

Locals live self-sufficiently with the help of wind and solar power and banks of batteries to keep their homes and small businesses thriving.

More than two-thirds of the island is a national park.

What's missing here is what makes this place so special — no foxes, black rats, or kangaroos. No possums or wallabies.

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That enables many other species to thrive, almost too well, judging by the koala population under the active control of Parks Victoria.

One of everything is enough for French Islanders

One tiny school attracts five or six children depending on other family demands and a one-stop shop provides locals with fuel and food to tide them over until they make a grocery trip across the water.

Mail and packages are delivered by boat to one very compact post office.

There’s mostly horror at the thought of a bridge being built to allow any of this daily existence to become a little easier. No-one wants an onslaught of "foreigners" as visitors are called.

They consider this place a paradise and they’re doing what they can to keep it that way.

There was a reason pop princess Kylie Minogue sought solitude here after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005.

The lack of easy access makes it a panacea for those seeking to hide away. But don’t think time has stopped still here.

The community is a living, working, microscopic example of what a group of like-minded people can do when armed with determination.

Like the tip committee, which deals with the fact that landfill is limited and reducing the amount of rubbish removed from the island is critical. Their solution is ingenious as well as practical.

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Transporting waste to the mainland is both costly and time-consuming. Instead, the community acquired a grant for a glass-crushing machine, which creates sand that residents use in their gardens, for potholes on their driveways, and for building jobs.

Protecting an unspoilt paradise

At the centre of the community is a woman whose family ties go back to the very beginning — Lois Airs.

Her forebears, the Thompsons, were the original free settlers and the generations that have come since have created a forward-thinking recycling and re-using environmental haven.

Survival is key. Not only do the residents embrace modern methods for renewable energy sources like wind and solar, but they also grow their own food, keep livestock, maintain original dirt roads, bake bread, and chop wood as the early pioneers did.

Lois, like other French Islanders, wears many different hats: a farmer, former tour bus driver, crusader for recycling, and member of the CFA.

She was part of the team that fought the fire at the Eco Inn that night.

"Seeing Phil and Yuko, sitting on the grass watching the last of their home and business burn to the ground, and without Sammy their dog, who was always with them, is something I’ll never forget," Lois says.

French Islanders accept they've made the choice to live in isolation and they don't want that to change.

But they're also conscious that means it is up to them to protect their unspoilt piece of paradise from the ravages of an outside world.

Tragically for Phil and Yuko, those ravages in the form of an inferno in the early hours of the morning saw paradise lost to them, but they will re-build with their good health intact and the help of a supportive community unlike any other.

Watch Lisa Millar as guest presenter on Back Roads in French Island on Monday at 8pm on ABC TV or catch up any time on ABC iview.

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